by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: GM(Genetically Modified)

Mar 5 2012

Petitions to label GM foods deserve support

My monthly (first Sunday) Food Matters column in the San Francisco Chronicle is inspired by California’s petition initiative to get labeling of genetically modified foods on the ballot.

Q. I was just handed a petition for a ballot initiative to label genetically modified foods. I signed it, but how come GM foods aren’t already labeled?

A. Labeling GM foods should be a no-brainer. Practically everyone wants them labeled. That’s why the Committee for the Right to Know is collecting signatures for a California ballot initiative to require it.

To say that food biotechnology industry supporters oppose this idea is to understate the matter. They think the future of GM foods is at stake. They must believe that if the foods were labeled, nobody would buy them.

If consumers distrust GM foods, the industry has nobody to blame but itself. It has done little to inspire trust.

Labeling promotes trust. Not labeling is undemocratic; it does not allow choice.

As I discuss in my book, “Safe Food,” I was a member of the FDA’s Food Advisory Committee when the agency approved production of the first GM tomato in 1994. As we learned later, the FDA was not asking our opinion. It was using us to gather reactions to decisions already made.

For reasons in part scientific but largely in response to industry pressures, the FDA decided that GM foods are inherently safe and no different from foods produced through traditional genetic techniques. Therefore, the thinking went, labeling would be unnecessary and mislead people into thinking that the foods are different and somehow inferior.

Some of us strongly advised the FDA to reconsider. We thought the issue of trust was paramount. If the products had some public benefit, people would buy them.

Consumers in Great Britain, for example, readily accepted tomato paste prominently labeled GM, not least because the cans were priced below those with conventional tomatoes.

But once Monsanto shipped GM corn to England without labeling it, and placed advertisements in British newspapers hyping the benefits of GM foods, the British public lost confidence. Sales declined and supermarket chains no longer were willing to carry GM items.

Today, close to 90 percent of corn, soybeans and sugar beets grown in the United States are GM varieties. You must assume that ingredients made from these foods are GM – unless the product is certified organic.

When researching “What to Eat,” I knew that Hawaiian papayas engineered to resist ringspot virus were the most likely candidates. I had some tested. The conventional was GM. The organic was not. Without labels, you have no way of knowing whether you are buying GM fruits and vegetables.

Intelligent people can argue about whether GM crops are good, bad or indifferent for agriculture, the environment and market economies, or whether the products are safe. But one point is clear. The absence of labeling cannot be good in the long run for business or American democracy.

Consumers have a right to know how foods are produced. Polls consistently report that most people want GM labeling. Lack of labeling raises uncomfortable questions about what the biotechnology industry and the FDA are trying to hide.

The FDA already requires labels to identify food that is made from concentrate or irradiated. At least 50 countries in Europe and elsewhere require disclosure of GM ingredients. I’ve seen candy bar labels in England with this statement: “Contains genetically modified sugar, soya and corn.” We could do this, too.

Last year, 14 states, including Oregon, New York and Vermont, introduced bills to require GM foods to be labeled. None passed, but the campaign has now gone national.

If you want a GM-label measure on the California ballot, go to labelgmos.org.  Just Label It is still collecting signatures. Signing these petitions is an important way to exercise your democratic rights as a citizen.

Feb 17 2012

Some thoughts on the “fire Mike Taylor” petitions

USA Today has picked up the various Internet petitions—SignOn, FoodDemocracyNow, CredoAction, etc— to fire Mike Taylor, the head food safety person at the FDA. 

When the FDA hired Mike Taylor nearly three years ago, I wrote a long post reviewing his complicated employment history: Monsanto, FDA, USDA, Monsanto, private sector, university, FDA—a classic example of the “revolving door.”.    

He was at FDA, although recused, when the agency approved GM foods and denied labeling. 

But at USDA, he was a public health hero to food safety advocates.  He was responsible for installing food safety oversight systems that have greatly reduced contamination outbreaks from meat and poultry.

 He was hired at FDA to do the same thing, which is why I thought his appointment made sense at the time.  I thought he ought to be given a chance.

 He has now become the flashpoint for public anger at FDA over issues that include GM foods but go well beyond them:

  • Failure to require labeling of GM foods
  • Failure to recognize the scaled-down safety needs of small farmers
  • Failure to enforce and punish food safety violations by large producers
  • Unfair enforcement of food safety procedures against small producers
  • Clamping down on raw milk producers

As I explained to USA Today, I’m a big fan of MoveOn and grass-roots political action, and I’ve been advocating for GM labeling since I was on the FDA Food Advisory Committee in 1994 (if only they had listened to me).

But I don’t exactly get where the “fire Monsanto Mike” movement is coming from nearly three years after he was hired.   Why make the political so personal?

As I told USA Today,

What would firing Mike Taylor do? It would show the muscle of the anti-corporate food movement, says Nestle, “and there’s much to be said for that.” However, she questions whether Taylor leaving would do anything to advance the goals of this loose coalition of activists. “Will it make the FDA listen more carefully to demands that it keep its priorities where the most serious food safety problems are? I don’t know.”

All of the issues mentioned in the petitions are important.  All are complicated.  All deserve serious thought and attention to political goals.  Will firing Mike Taylor advance those goals? 

I don’t see how.

What am I missing here?

 

Jan 30 2012

Isn’t it about time GM foods got labels?

I was fascinated to read Cookson Beecher’s Food Safety News’ analysis of current campaigns to label genetically modified foods (GMOs).

It brought back memories of the time I served as an obviously ignored consumer representative on the FDA’s Food Advisory Committee.  Back in the early 1990s, the FDA formed this committee to get advice on issues that might be controversial.  It asked us for advice about whether to approve GM foods and, if so, whether they should be labeled.

We learned later that the FDA was using the committee to give it a heads up on decisions that were already made.  The FDA had every intention of approving GMOs (I wrote about this in my book Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety).

I and the other three consumer representatives argued as strongly as we could that labeling was essential:

  • Consumers have a right to know
  • Consumers want to know (polls showed this overwhelmingly, even in 1994)
  • Not-labeling will induce distrust of biotech foods and the biotech industry
  • Not-labeling will end up hurting the biotech industry (in Europe, definitely.  Monsanto is no longer selling GM corn in France and BASF has moved its biotech operations to the U.S.)
  • Not-labeling will stimulate the organic industry (it did!)
  • The FDA allows plenty of process labeling (e.g., made from concentrate, irradiated)
  • Not-labeling will make the FDA look as if it was in bed with the biotech industry
  • Transparency is always the right thing to do

Too bad our arguments failed.  Eighteen years later, not-labeling has caused no end of problems for the biotech industry.  This issue is not going away.

The FDA has approved many GM fruits and vegetables but it is impossible to know whether they are offered for sale in supermarkets (as I discussed in Safe Food, Hawaiian papayas are the most likely candidates).

But most corn, soybeans, and cotton grown in America are GM.  So are sugar beets.

Campaigns to require labeling of GM foods are heating up.

  • Washington state is considering legislation
  • California may have a ballot initiative
  • 14 states, among them Oregon, New York, Maryland and Vermont, considered bills last year
  • Alaska passed a law requiring GMO labeling of fish and shellfish in 2005
  • 50 countries require disclosure of GM ingredients

The “Just Label It!” campaign is collecting signatures.  If this is an issue you care about, signing on is easy.

Dec 13 2011

Is nanotechnology the new GMO?

Food Navigator reports that UK experts are demanding public debate and regulation of nanomaterials in foods.  Without that, they warn, nanotechnology risks “facing the same fate as genetically modified (GM) foods in consumer perceptions.”

Nanotechnology is about manipulating materials on the scale of atoms or molecules, measured in nanometers (nm), one billionth, or 10−9, of a meter.

Many companies are already using nanomaterials in agriculture, food processing, food packaging, and supplements.  This is not something the public has heard much about.  Food companies often don’t know whether or not they are using these materials.

Nanotechnology science is new, and the industry is unregulated.

The FDA’s nanotechnology web page links to a quite thorough 2007 report from a task force,  but the agency’s only guidance to date tells companies how they can find out whether they are using nanomaterials.

Jumping into that gap, As You Sow has issued a Sourcing Framework for Food and Food Packaging Products Containing Nanomaterials.

As You Sow says:

Not only is this technology unregulated and untested for its implications on public health but companies may not even be aware if they are using products made with nanomaterials….In consultation with food companies such as: Kraft, McDonald’s (which has adopted a “no nano” policy), Whole Foods, Yum! Brands, and Pepsi, the nonprofit organization As You Sow developed this practical tool which clearly outlines what companies should ask their suppliers regarding the safety of products containing nanomaterials.

The report fills an important gap.  Companies using this technology should be telling the public more about it.  Nanotechnology is technical, difficult to grasp intuitively, “foreign,” and not under personal control.  This places it high on the scale of “dread-and-outrage.”

Does it belong there?  Who knows?  But the sooner its risks and benefits are assessed, the better.   Otherwise it risks becoming the next GMO in public perception.

 

 

Sep 7 2011

USDA seeks method to compensate farmers for GM contamination

I am a long-time reader of Food Chemical News, a weekly newsletter covering a huge range of food issues and invaluable for someone like me who lives outside the Beltway and does not have access to the ins and outs of Washington DC politics.

An item in the August 30 issue caught my attention:  USDA secretary Tom Vilsack’s instructions to his department’s new Advisory Committee on Biotechnology and 21st Century Agriculture (AC21).

Get this: Vilsack told AC21 to come up with a plan for compensating organic or conventional farmers whose crops become contaminated by GM genes through pollen drift.

According to Food Chemical News, Vilsack gave a three-part charge to the panel:

  1. What types of compensation mechanisms, if any, would be appropriate?
  2. What would be necessary to implement such mechanisms?
  3. What other actions would be appropriate to bolster or facilitate coexistence among different agricultural production systems in the United States?

Vilsack urged the committee to address the questions in order and not yield to temptation to address the third question first.

“This is a very specific charge,” Vilsack stressed. He also told the AC21 not to worry if their proposed solutions would require an act of Congress or new regulations. “Don’t worry about the mechanism. We’ll figure out how to make it happen.”

Why is Vilsack doing this?

“What motivates me is an opportunity to revitalize the rural economy,” the agriculture secretary declared. “I have no favorite [type of agriculture] here. I don’t have that luxury. I just want to find consensus. I believe that people who are smart and reasonable can find a solution.”

Responding to a question from panel member, Vilsack said the AC21’s failure to come up with solutions would result in “continuation of what we have today….If we want to revitalize rural America, we can’t do it while we’re fighting each other.”

Deputy USDA secretary Kathleen Merrigan cited the recent droughts and flooding as an “overwhelming time for agriculture.”

I wonder how we are going to prevent the loss of more farmers and encourage young people to take up farming….you have to come up with scenarios where there’s lack of data.  You don’t have to figure out the politics.  That’s my job and the secretary’s.  Just answer the questions [in the charge] and let us carry the water.

Interesting, no?

Could this possibly mean that instead of Monsanto suing organic or conventional farmers whose crops get intermingled with patented GM varieties, Monsanto might now have to pay the farmers for the damage caused by the contamination?

I can’t wait to see what AC21 comes up with.

May 26 2011

That pesky GMO issue again

The L.A. Times has one of the better stories I’ve seen lately about genetically modified (GM) foods.  I don’t usually write much about this topic because there is so little new to say about it.

I’ve been writing about GM foods for 20 years now and I’d call it a stalemate.  The industry says:

  • GM foods are absolutely necessary to feed the world.
  • Farmers love them.
  • They are harmless.

Farmers do like using them because they do not have to do as many pesticide applications or worry as much about weeds.

But the first and third points are highly debatable, as the article discusses.

I worry most about two aspects of GM foods:

  • They encourage corporate control of the food supply and monoculture (never good ideas)
  • They do not give consumers choices because they aren’t labeled.

The LA Times illustrates both points in one terrific graphic:

 

The states are starting to act, but this is really the FDA’s issue.  It’s time to get the FDA to reverse its 1994 decision not to label GM foods.

 

 

May 6 2011

AGree: “Can’t we just all get along?”

The title of this post is a quote from Steve Clapp’s article today in Food Chemical News about the unspoken message behind formation of a new group called AGree (Agriculture, Agree, get it?).  AGree, according to its gorgeous website, aims to “advance the well-being and prosperity of people in the United States and abroad by transforming food and agriculture policy.”

AGree is a bold new initiative designed to tackle long-term agricultural, food and rural policy issues. AGree has significant funding from eight of the world’s leading foundations for at least the next eight years…We also recognize the interconnected nature of agriculture policy globally and we seek to break down traditional silos and work across issue areas.

The funders? These are heavy hitters: Ford Foundation, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, The William & Flora Hewlett Foundation, The David and Lucile Packard Foundation, W.K. Kellogg Foundation, The McKnight Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation and The Walton Family Foundation.

Who is running the show? AGree is to be led by former Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman; Gary Hirshberg, chairman and CEO of Stonyfield Farm; Jim Moseley, former USDA deputy secretary in the first Bush administration; and Emmy Simmons, former assistant administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

What’s the plan? AGree will “Build bridges among groups that have not traditionally worked together…This approach is needed because policy reform efforts targeting the food and agriculture system have traditionally operated in many independent silos – governmental, political, stakeholder, geographic and substantive – that have made transformative change impossible.”

Steve Clapp quotes Dan Glickman saying that AGree is going to “operate outside the partisan political process” because “Food policy is too important to be left to the food industry.”

What are we to make of this? It’s much too soon to say but it reminds me of two previous efforts to forge consensus among stakeholders.

One is a group that I belong to called PAPSAC, which stands for Private and Public, Scientific, Academic, and Consumer Food Policy Group.  The group, organized by Ray Goldberg, has been meeting for about 15 years, first at the Harvard Business School and more recently at the Kennedy School.  The meeting brings together high level CEOs of food and agribusiness companies, government officials, people in business and public relations, academics, and advocates to exchange views in private.  Its original purpose was to try to find middle ground on controversial issues such as genetically modified foods.   But one of the unstated hopes was that consumer advocates would relent on opposition to GM foods.

The second example is the ill-fated Smart Choices.  This, you may recall, was an attempt of the Keystone Center to get food companies and academics to agree on common standards for front-of-package labeling.  When it became evident that food companies were calling the shots, the consumer advocates dropped out.  The result?  The Smart Choices logo appeared on Froot Loops and failed the laugh test.

The problem with attempts to build consensus is that the sides aren’t equal.  Agribusiness calls the shots or won’t play.

I’m curious to know how the leadership intends to proceed.  At the Future of Food meeting in Washington this week, Gary Hirshberg made it clear that he is a strong proponent of organic agriculture and strongly against GM.  I don’t see easy bridges between stakeholders with this particular issue, but maybe AGree will start with easier ones.

If I read between the lines correctly, AGree will convene meetings and produce policy papers.  The group seems to be steering clear of the 2012 Farm Bill until after it’s passed.

As with all such things, let’s wish the AGree leaders luck and give them a chance to see what they can do.

Feb 4 2011

GM alfalfa: the politics explained

I’m still trying to understand how it happened that USDA’s plan for peaceful coexistence among growers of alfalfa—genetically modified (GM), industrial (but not GM), and organic (definitely not GM))—failed so miserably.  It was the first time that USDA seemed to be recognizing the legitimacy of complaints that GM crops are contaminating organic crops.  I thought this was a food step forward.

But the USDA ended up approving GM alfalfa with no restrictions—just promises to study the matter.

I’ve now seen some explanations that not only make sense, but also shed considerable light on how agricultural politics works in Washington these days.

Sam Fromartz, author of Organic, Inc, writes on his blog that after USDA’s decision:

The only appeasement the USDA offered were panels on studying ways to prevent contamination from occurring in the future. But this seems akin to studying ways to protect a forest after loggers have been allowed to cut down the trees.

The decision was a stunning reversal of a more measured approach that Vilsack appeared to be taking in December, when the USDA talked about considering the impact of the GM crop on other sectors of agriculture. But that was before he faced an uproar by the GM industry and the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal for playing nice with organic farmers.

Gary Hirshberg, in response to heavy criticism that he sold out to Monsanto, writes on the Huffington Post:

Stonyfield is absolutely and utterly opposed to the deregulation of GE crops. We believe that these crops are resulting in significantly higher uses of toxic herbicides and water, creating a new generation of costly “super” weeds, pose severe and irreversible threats to biodiversity and seed stocks, do not live up to the superior yield claims of their patent holders and are unaffordable for small family farmers in the US and around the world.

We believe that organic farming methods are proving through objective, scientific validation to offer far better solutions. We also believe that unrestricted deregulation of GE crops unfairly limits farmer and consumer choice.

…From the outset of these stakeholder discussions, it was clear that GE alfalfa had overwhelming political, legal, financial and regulatory support, and thus the odds were severely stacked against any possibility of preventing some level of approval, just as has been the case with GE cotton, soy, canola and corn.

Keep in mind that, according to Food and Water Watch, biotech has spent more than half a billion dollars ($547 million) lobbying Congress since 1999. Their lobby expenditures more than doubled during that time. In 2009 alone they spent $71 million. Last year they had more than 100 lobbying firms working for them, as well as their own in-house lobbyists.

In an interview with Food Chemical News (Feb 3), Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety,  one of the groups leading the opposition to GM alfalfa:

describes USDA’s promises as a “stale gesture” toward organic and other industry groups that had worked with the department on its proposed option for partial deregulation of RR alfalfa. He speculates that USDA was prepared to go down the partial deregulation route but was “shot down at the White House level….

“It’s not about organic and GMOs,” Kimbrell continues. “The real losses are not with organic crops but with conventional crops,” such as rice commingled with Bayer’s authorized LibertyLink 601 variety and corn commingled with the StarLink variety. “The growers can’t sell their crops to Europe or Asia. The issue is how do we keep GMOs from contaminating conventional crops such as rice, corn and now alfalfa?”

Food and Water Watch, another leading group on this issue and the source of the lobbying data in Hirshberg’s comments,  points out that the USDA’s decision to allow unrestricted planting of GM alfalfa is not likely to be an isolated case.  The FDA is currently considering approval of GM salmon, and its decision is expected soon.

Both organizations are organizing protests on their websites, but this is how agricultural politics works these days.

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